THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING.........OR MAYBE NOT
Mickey Blue Eyes
In 1968 film director Tony Richardson made a masterpiece, The Charge of the Light Brigade, still well worth seeing. It told the true story of crazy equine mayhem in 1854 Crimea when Western Europe yet again invaded Eastern Europe and blamed the Russians for the invasion, while British Colonel Blimps, as usual, screwed everything up. So far as I know it was the first serious feature film to use animation inserts (by Richard Williams) to underpin anti-war satire and mock the Cold War. Stiff-faced Vladimir Putin is not the first Russian to be demonised, nor will he be the last. FK Krasnodar, our Thursday night opponents in the Europa League, come from a city a mere five hundred kilometres from the site of The Charge. We hoped for a better outcome than that deadly Blimp pantomime.
According to tabloids, first we would have to overcome something called "a weather bomb." Well, they have to keep you frightened somehow. In previous years this was known as the start of winter - you know, very cold, very windy, very rainy, very pissy-offy - but slothful hyperbole is the first and last resort of journalists when justifying wages. I can see clear across to beautiful North Wales from my balcony but I looked in vain for said weather bomb. All I saw was December weather. Which was as cold as when Zenit St. Petersburg were our last Russian visitors in 2007. (Hold the emails. BATE Borisov are Belarusian). Maybe the latest invading Cossack hordes would bring the bomb with them. After all, everyone knows they live in perpetual winter, never smile, are always drunk on vodka, eat nothing but boiled cabbage, and are poised to send the Red Army to rape and pillage Bracknell Bowls Club. Or is it the Peoria Softball Conference. Or even Benidorm Bingo Hall.
Cold War propaganda - boutique bullshit at best - was once so successful, when my grandmother heard the Chinese and Russians were at loggerheads she said it would take them less than half an hour to get to Rhyl; my grandfather said trigger-happy Yanks at Burtonwood would friendly-fire each other. If you want to see how utterly absurd and near-suicidal was that era you need only view United States of Paranoia propaganda films or check archives for that demented old soak Joe McCarthy. If interested, you can get the gist of the latter in the 2005 film Good Night and Good Luck, which demonstrates not all residents of the Home of the Brave have gone insane. It would be funny if the same stuff was not being churned out over the tragedy that is, yet again, Ukraine, where, of course, the Russians "invade" but do not "surge." Shades of the doomed, surging Light Brigade. Or for that matter the surging in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria and the surge of NATO into Eastern Europe. No wonder the Russians are as paranoid as the nutcases at Langley and Vauxhall Cross.
Meanwhile, the match weather was the same as it always is at this time of year: lousy. They were the kind of conditions that sorted out the men from the boys on and off the pitch. But still no evidence of a weather bomb despite the spattering, soaking rain and low temperatures. Poor old County Road looked awful - steel shuttered shops, rain puddles for the unwary, chewing gum splodges on the pavement, hooded-up smattering of fans headed toward the floodlights. Since it was broadcast live on TV it was bound to leave the less hearty in a quandary about going at all; it meant donning your insulated space suit. In the event the attendance was a hardy 20,000 souls, the absolute bedrock of supporters. The managers stood out at the dotted line, Roberto in his standard dark barn jacket, Oleg (I kid you not) in what looked like a T.J.Hughes light anorak. The players had no space suits.
Team: Robles, Browning, Garbutt, Oviedo, Koné, Barry, Atsu, Pienaar, Alcaraz, McAleny, Ledson. Kieran Dowell subbed for Atsu after ten minutes, Chris Long for McAleny after eighty, and Gethin Jones for Browning on ninety. So Roberto kept his promise to give the youngsters a chance. I knew none of the Russian side, except to note their goalkeeper was number eighty-eight and one of the outfield players was number ninety-eight.
Anyway, when Krasnodar emerged from the tunnel they looked disarmingly like any other group of professional footy players, thus severely wrong-footing the Daily Mail, the Sun and Fox/Sky News. None of them were driving T-90 tanks and none looked like advance scouts for Putin's invasion of Bootle. But you have to say some of Our Boys looked like an adolescent Light Brigade of sorts. Alan said we comprised a Dads'n'Lads team.
There is little to be said for the match as a spectacle, except to admire the way all the players managed to pass and move and keep their feet in appalling conditions, and for us a chance to see how the younger players performed, plus the return of Koné and Oviedo. Overall, there was no question the Russians were the better team and deserved to win 1-0. The margin could have been wider but they missed a couple of chances near the end.
Our two best players were Luke Garbutt and Arouna Koné. Garbutt looks the real deal, composed, strong and a first class striker of the ball, a natural football athlete. Koné had a good match, determined, strong and unlucky not to score on two occasions. But all of the youngsters were a credit to themselves; none performed badly, and once they settled down did a lot of good things without anything flashy. The veteran players did their bit in support, which meant the second half performance improved when Steven Pienaar went to centre mid to try and direct things. It was good too to see Bryan Oviedo, even though he was playing out of position.
The goal came after half an hour when the enemy, not for the first time, made a neat move through the left centre and - where have we heard this before - left the centre backs for dead. Robles came out for an almost routine dive at the attacker feet, changed his mind, stepped back, feinted brilliantly to his left, wrong footed everybody except the attacker, and it got stuck in to his right. That will look as good on his CV as any of his other efforts. No wonder Tim Howard feels he can play on for another five years.
For the most part the crowd was patient and understanding of the situation and at the end gave a generous round of applause despite the disappointment of our third loss in a row. Everyone seemed to realise we have reached a point where the youngsters must be given an opportunity to show if they are capable or not. We cannot on the one hand say we have too many veteran players, then complain when Roberto does the obvious. This season it obviously asks too much of fate if you want us to relish any success we may have. Still, we did top Group H, which is no small compensation. I badly want Villarreal in the knock out stage draw on Monday.
Well, at least it wasn't another Charge of the Light Brigade. Worry not if you missed the first one. If the loonies in Westminster and Whitehall get their way there will be another along shortly. Personally, I cannot wait to get Villarreal or Fiorentina in a crossfire.